The debut of Chef Chele Gonzalez in the local scene couldn’t have come at a better time. His arrival harkened back to the days when clued-in people were all abuzz about a new kind of modern gastronomy (let’s not use the other “m” word, shall we? Hehe!) This kind of food was light years away from all that was familiar—cooks coaxed flavors using methods normally found in chemistry labs, changing physical forms into something altogether different, and challenging one to use all their senses while eating it. It was—and is—an interesting, experiential way of eating, and no one did it better than the Spanish, especially those named Adria, Arzak and Aduriz (they all brought their “A” game! *rimshot)—and these were the exact same kitchens that have formed Gonzalez’s cooking style.
In a lot of ways, Gonzalez was very successful in bringing this style to our table, opening VASK, a tapas bar, but more importantly, Gallery Vask, a tiny space with an open kitchen where he could apply his wizardry and feed the curious locals with otherworldly dishes. Otherworldly is the word, indeed—because it was cooking that made you think a lot about what you were tasting, and cooking that took many twists and turns. However, this was all just the beginning for him.
At some point, the chef’s roots started planting itself in the land he currently calls home, and he began a new education of sorts through an introduction to the flora and fauna, the produce and other treasures you can find in the markets, or even indigenous plants that grow wild. Here he was, thousands of miles from his homeland of Spain, surrounded by such abundance, yet far removed from what he was used to. This may just have been the point of his reawakening, the emergence of Chele 2.0 with his new Gallery by Chele and its beating heart called Stvdio Lab.
Clearly there is still an umbilical cord attached from the mother that was Gallery Vask to the baby Stvdio Lab. Both were conceived as a space where the chef and his team could do virtually anything, using an arsenal of culinary gadgetry. But that is where the similarity ends. Where Gallery Vask was about as cerebral as it gets, the good chef has ruffled his hair and loosened his tie over at Stvdio Lab, eager to bring out his more casual and playful side. One will feel this as soon as you enter the door: an inviting table that seats 10 is set up, as if you were entering someone’s home. To the side, a wall full of books, photos, a turntable and some vinyl. Kind of makes you want to grab a beer and lounge—and that’s a good thing.
The Lab also shows off Gonzalez’s expressions for local ingredients—even the humblest, most overlooked ones. At a recent dinner, one of the crowd favorites was a dish of ulang (river prawns) partnered with a rich béarnaise and the surprising inclusion of dressed upo (bottle gourd) seeds, giving the prawns a textural and acidic foil, and leaving diners nodding their heads at the use of upo. Now why didn’t anyone else think of that?
For now, those of us lucky enough to get seats at Stvdio Lab will be able to enjoy it once a month. The menu is anyone’s guess—certainly some of the dishes will be culled from those served in the main dining room Gallery by Chele, but others will be dishes made on the fly, or those that they just wanted to mess around with. In other words, there may be stuff you’ll eat that will NEVER APPEAR ON THEIR MENU EVER AGAIN. It’s just like watching Game of Thrones—don’t get too attached to the characters because you never know when they’ll get axed. To soothe those FOMO feelings, go get the wine pairing, and dive into that rabbit hole of interesting wines to bring your experience to another level. If the test launch was any indication, some very good times are ahead for diners at the Lab.
Together with his sous chef Carlos Villaflor, and F&B couple Cyril and Pierre Addison (Pierre’s wine pairings are really delicious!), Gonzalez has also formed a restaurant consultancy team called ADVICHE with—ta dah!—Stvdio Lab as their HQ and test kitchen. Considering that for now the kitchen will be used to feed guests once a month, using their formidable combined knowledge to help people envision and execute their culinary dreams is a smart move.
In a crowded restaurant landscape such as Manila’s, doing something fresh and compelling is quite a challenge. If there were a group that have the collective powers to navigate through all this, it’s this one. Stay tuned to all channels for special events, collaborations, and general culinary mayhem—Stvdio Lab is ready to blow s**t up.
5/F Clipp Center, 11th Avenue corner 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, www.stvdiolab.com, IG @stvdiolab
Tartare with radish and mustard leaves in cashew milk
Ulang or river prawns with roasted garlic béarnaise, upo seeds and kalamansi
Maya maya with cacao nibs and roasted eggplant in a basil broth
Tuna cooked in aged beef fat with green chilies and a salad of goto kola and pansit pansitan
Calamansi custard tart with sampaguita ice cream dusted with basil powder
A riff on tortang talong, takoyaki with eggplant and pinakurat mayonnaise
Empanadita with tuna and chili aioli
Photographs by Dre Ferrer (courtesy of Stvdio Lab)